Dismantling a war

A. M. Rosenthal

May 19, 1993|By A. M. Rosenthal

BEFORE it is too late, Americans should realize that th concept of the war against drugs is in danger of being dismantled and the result will be creeping legalization.

If that is what they want, fine -- they can get it by just keeping silent.

But if they are among the huge majority of Americans who believe legalization would build drug addiction into American life forever then they should make themselves heard now. There is still time, while decisions are being made in government.

Until recently everybody interested in fighting drug addiction instead of surrendering to it by legalization accepted one concept: The struggle could not be won by one weapon but only through an irreducible variety, each strong. They were six:

Reduction of foreign drug crops. Interdiction of drug smuggling. Enforcement of laws against making, selling or using drugs. Education against drugs. Treatment of addicts. Presidential leadership.

Now four of the six are in question: reduction, interdiction, enforcement, leadership.

For about 20 years, ever since the drug war became an obvious top priority, there has been argument Who says drug laws don't work?

about how to divide the money. Mostly it was about how much law enforcement and interdiction should get compared with treatment.

I believe that funds for the whole arsenal should be expanded rather than weaken any part of it. If not, give more money to treatment, without killing the rest of the package.

But now elected and appointed officials are making it clear that they have no real interest in some of the essential instruments of the struggle. A few federal judges are saying they will no longer handle drug cases involving mandatory sentences. They should resign, or be asked to leave by Congress.

They help spread the myth that the drug laws have failed. The truth is we do not know because the "mandatory" sentences have not been carried out nationwide.

Prof. John J. DiIulio Jr., of Princeton and the Brookings Institution, a particularly lucid expert, says that most drug criminals spend only 10 months in prison, less than a third of their average sentence; that most of them are not in jail for possession but for organized selling and distributing; that in state prisons they are mostly men who served time for other crimes, and that on the street the possibility of long jail time is a prime deterrent. I save my sorrow for Americans and foreigners hunted down by drug gangsters, or just shot in casual sport.

Interdiction is now routinely called a failure by trendies because it did not seal off America. That was not the goal -- just to make life harder for the drug trade, instead of saying come right in and ruin us.

But some in the Clinton administration, including Attorney General Janet Reno, make it known that they do not have much interest in pursuing interdiction. How would you like to be an American agent risking his life to fight drug smuggling and production? Or a Latin president who trusted America to carry out life-and-death promises from one administration to another?

Drug arrests diminish in some cities because the assumption grows that law enforcement does not work in the streets. Says who? Ask Americans who live in neighborhoods where children cannot step out of the house for fear of drug crossfire. Do they want even less protection than is now their miserable lot?

What's more, reducing drug arrests immediately reduces the hope in treatment. Drug criminals are often hard-core addicts who will not subject themselves to tough therapy until they are behind bars.

I do not suggest a conspiracy in Washington -- just trendiness, mushy thinking, lack of commitment. Perhaps that is a matter of middle- or upper-class background, where it is easier to quit drug use, so it all seems not so terribly terrible. The legalizers will take advantage of all that, creep by creep.

They will achieve de facto legalization unless Americans speak up, most of all President Clinton. By acting as if the drug struggle is not very interesting. From the campaign, most voters did not expect that.

Four out of six endangered -- but all salvageable. Pay attention or pay the price.

A.M. Rosenthal is a columnist for the New York Times.

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